Full disclosure: I’ve known Roddy McKay, an old friend of my father’s, for all my life. In fact, like him, I was a child laborer. I helped build the addition to his Del Rey Oaks house while 11 years old, though $7 an hour was far more generous than the 2 cents a week he got (see story, p. 22). But like his kids, I never knew the depths of his intense orphan backstory until I took a peek at his memoir, which reminds me how little we know about so many close to us. Here’s how his story starts.
– Mark C. Anderson
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Following a 60-plus years hiatus of searching for my two younger brothers, we finally reunited in 2000. Our story received considerable publicity from the news media. Once the story of our reunion became public, some friends suggested I write a memoir. I was reluctant to take on such a project; however, with encouragement from friends and family, I finally decided to give it a try. I began to write this memoir in 2001 at age 66, due to the unsettled years of my early childhood; a few of my recollections are vague. I have taken some liberty in writing of conversations that took place 60 years ago. The incidents cited did happen, but it is unrealistic to expect a total verbatim recall of those many conversations.
Memories of the Fairbridge School I lived in from 1941 to 1951 had not really been on my mind for over 35 years. After years of listening to many of my schoolmates, I now realize that of the 329 children sent to Fairbridge, there are 329 individual stories. There are those who hold the school in high esteem. Others (including myself), who experienced abuse at the hands of staff members and bullies, do not share those feelings. Contrary to the opinions of many, abuse of children did take place at Fairbridge.
Canadian, Australian and U.K. government child-welfare agencies compiled official records on all the Fairbridge schools. Most of the official records the U.K. government and the organizations, e.g., “The Fairbridge Farm Schools” released to the public, gave glowing reports of Fairbridge. However, later books, such as The Little Immigrants, by Kenneth Bagnell and Oranges and Sunshine by Margret Humphries, tell a far different story. Those are two books where the authors interviewed the former child migrants who actually experienced life in these institutions.
Critical reports by Canadian health and child welfare representatives, coupled with the school’s financial problems, led to its closing. Conveniently buried in the Fairbridge archives is one [story] of a perverted duty master, whom the police arrested and jailed. Following his release, the administration rehired and consequently arrested [him] one more time for his continual acts of perversion. He was charged for his deviant behaviour that he inflicted during the course of strapping boys sent to him for punishment.
Those authorized by the government agencies involved or Fairbridge itself are able to view the records of the school operation. For us former child migrants sent to Fairbridge, the administration and staff records remain sealed. We will all be dead by the time they release these confidential files, and this makes it impossible for any Fairbridgian to lodge any viable complaint or take legal action for recourse.
In my reminiscences, I have conscientiously avoided the temptation to recast the past in a favourable light for my own personal benefit at the expense of others. Simply put as this quotation, “To write one’s memoir is to speak ill of everybody but oneself.” To avoid slipping down that slippery slope I kept in mind an old childhood rhyme: “I hate the guys that criticize and minimize the other guys, which make them rise the enterprises above the heads of the other guys.”
A child’s life at Fairbridge hinged on many factors, e.g. the child’s age when they arrived, or what year they arrived, the circumstances of separation from their family. Several years ago, in a news article, a former cottage mate, who suffered abuse during his early years at Fairbridge, was quoted as follows: “The Fairbridge experience differed from child to child, to use the old gambler’s expression; it was determined often by the luck of the draw. The age and the year of their arrival, which cottage they were placed in being the biggest factor in this equation.”
Placing children 6 to 9 years of age in a cottage that already housed teenagers was highly questionable. The British school bully system was prevalent in both schools, such as Fairbridge and schools for children of the titled and wealthy class. The cottage mother undoubtedly was the biggest factor of all. Many of these cottage mothers were decent women; most were unmarried women or widows. However, several of these women were unfit and never should have been hired to any position that involved caring for children.